Seven hundred forty seven million dollars is a jumbo price by any standards. It is what the French government charged Abu Dhabi to help create a world-class museum on an artificial island. The agreement, signed in 2007, envisioned 30 years of art loans, management advice and special exhibitions, as also rights to use the most famous museum name in the world: the Louvre. The Louvre brand cost Abu Dhabi an additional $520 million. The building, designed by Jean Nouvel, was budgeted at a little over $100 million. A maritime museum, a wing of the Guggenheim Museum, and a performing arts centre were also planned for Saadiyat Island, the total budget for which was $27 billion. This, in an emirate that did not have a single paved road when its current ruler was born.

When plans for Saadiyat Island were first made public, I thought it was a crazy vanity project, and the vanity became more apparent when the financial crisis hit the following year. Though Abu Dhabi did not feel the pinch as strongly as its sexier but relatively resource-poor cousin Dubai, the opening of the Gulf’s Louvre was pushed back from the scheduled 2012. The Guggenheim, which already had branches in places like Bilbao and little government red tape to contend with, had been up and running a year before the Louvre got on board, but state backing helped once funds got scarce. Development of the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim is stuck, with no opening date in sight. Meanwhile, the Louvre finally welcomed its first visitors in November.

In previous visits to Dubai, I had never considered making a day trip to its larger neighbouring Emirate, but did so last week to assess the first visible success to emerge from the great vanity project called Saadiyat Island. I had not been thrilled with Jean Nouvel’s design, which looks like a dish upturned over scattered boxes. Walking through the building did not change my opinion. Maybe I am blind to the excellence of the building, which certainly looks unique, but it felt to me like a fairly conventional group of white cube galleries trying to be radical. The collection, on the other hand, left me seriously impressed. It is a mix of loans from the Louvre and other major French museums like the Musee Guimet and the Musee D’Orsay (which offered the famous canvas Whistler’s Mother), displays one masterpiece from a museum in Jordan, and showcases the already substantial acquisitions of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. The total gallery space is only about a tenth of the Paris Louvre, which means most tourists can cover the place in two to four hours and leave feeling like they have seen everything important.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi, designed by Jean Nouvel. (Credit: AFP)

Up close and personal

Among the many significant loans currently being exhibited is an oil painting on wood attributed to Leonardo da Vinci called La Belle Ferronnière. A second Leonardo, titled Salvator Mundi, was acquired by the Abu Dhabi government a few days after the Louvre Abu Dhabi opened, and will soon join the museum’s permanent exhibits. Salvator Mundi fetched $450 million at a Christie’s auction, obliterating the previous record for a work of art, or for pretty much any single object in the universe.

Salvator Mundi will, no doubt, draw massive crowds to the museum, which will congregate around that painting and ignore most of the other exhibits. Had La Belle Ferronnière been on the market, it would have fetched a far higher price than Salvator Mundi, since the latter work has been heavily restored. Yet, on the day we visited, La Belle Ferronnière was receiving little special attention from the sparse crowd. One of my companions got her nose just three inches or so from the painting’s surface, which is unprotected by glass and therefore free of reflections, before a guard gently asked her to move away. We took our time examining the painting at close quarters, something that would be utterly impossible in any institution in the United States, Europe, and probably China and Japan. To illustrate what I mean, here are two photographs I have taken in the past few months, the first at the Hermitage in St Petersburg, where hordes of mainly Chinese tourists lay permanent siege to the Madonna Litta, a small painting attributed to Da Vinci.

Tourists take pictures of the 'Madonna Litta', attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, at the Hermitage in St Petersburg. (Credit: Girish Shahane)

The second is of the Da Vinci currently on loan in Abu Dhabi, with the amiable guard posing next to it.

Leonardo Da Vinci's 'La Belle Ferronnière', on loan from the Paris Louvre. (Credit: Girish Shahane)

So, for those who would give the Abu Dhabi Louvre a miss because they have seen many of the works in France, or can do so in the future, here is a tip: unless you have extraordinarily exclusive VIP access, no museum in France will afford you a comparable intimacy with artistic masterpieces of the highest quality.

Cross-cultural collection

The curatorial approach of the museum is cross-cultural, using broad subjects like “The First Villages” to put work from disparate cultures in the same room. It is a popular way of arranging exhibits at the moment; a show on view right now at Bombay’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya museum titled India and the World: A History in Nine Stories, which will travel to Delhi’s National Museum soon, does something similar, though it has India as a constant focus, while the Abu Dhabi Louvre seeks to be properly international. I liked most of the new Louvre’s cross-cultural juxtapositions, though sub-Saharan Africa resists being buttonholed into current narratives of world history.

A Roman statue stands next to a Gandhara figure at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. (Credit: Girish Shahane)

Of course, since the museum is an inter-governmental project funded by a conservative monarchy, there are no difficult historical questions raised at any point. Also, female nudes seem to be proscribed, though a couple of large sculptures of naked males have made the grade.

A male nude on display at the museum. (Credit: Girish Shahane)

As I left the museum, I remained unclear about the main motive behind the project. Is it meant primarily as a tourist attraction? Or is the government trying to develop skills and stimulate new directions among its own citizens by renting the best talent, as it has also done with educational institutions like the Sorbonne and New York University? If it is the first, I doubt if revenues will ever cover the enormous expenses. If the latter, it will at some point become a threat to the monarchy, because museums and institutions of higher education are founded on liberal, democratic principles. Leaving out larger questions, though, I liked the Abu Dhabi Louvre enormously. It is a classy and accessible place, with a tightly curated collection of high quality artworks that any museum in the world would be happy to exhibit.